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Doubleheaders could be the solution to baseball’s schedule crisis

Weekly doubleheaders are reportedly on the table this season.

League Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Five Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Right now, everyone wants baseball to begin as soon as possible. However, as the coronavirus outbreak continues with no end in the foreseeable future, the MLB season is likely to remain suspended until at least Memorial Day. This presents the complex issue of how many games to actually play this season. If the clubs all played a full 162 games, the season could drag on until December, which is probably untenable.

Assuming the season is shortened, how brief can the season be while still maintaining a large sample size? If the season was too short, (let’s say 60-80 games), one hot or cold streak could be the difference in making or missing the playoffs. It just doesn’t seem like enough of a sample to determine which teams should advance to the playoffs. Mariano Rivera is not a fan, saying that a team cannot call itself “World Champions” after playing a 60-game regular season.

So, MLB doesn’t want the games to drag into December, but the players don’t want the regular season to be too short. What’s the possible compromise? According to ESPN insider Jeff Passan, playing doubleheaders once or twice a week could be in the offing:

This is obviously a huge change to an MLB schedule that is usually fine-tuned to a specific and tricky relationship between daily play and regular rest. The key to figuring out how many games need to be played lies in figuring out: A) how many weeks of play there will be, and B) how many games MLB establishes as its target number in this shortened season.

Passan notes that the season might start in early June, which would give the season about 18 weeks of play. As for the target number of games played, if 60-80 games is too low and 125 is unfeasible without pushing the season towards winter, how about we settle on 100-112 games as our goal?

The normal MLB season is about 27 weeks long. 162 games over 27 weeks is an average of exactly six games per week in a normal MLB season. If teams continued to play six games per week over the 18 weeks after June, that’s 108 games played (or, exactly two-thirds of a full season).

This fits right in our target range! For comparison’s sake, it’s better than the NHL did in its lockout-shortened 2013 (when the league played 59 percent of a full season), worse than the NBA after the 2012 lockout (which somehow still played 80 percent of a full season), and about equal with MLB in the strike-shortened 1981 (when teams played roughly two-thirds of a full season).

But, what if the coronavirus is still around later than expected, and 18 weeks of play starting in June isn’t a possibility? The later the season starts, the fewer games can be played – that is, if we stick to the six-games-per-week ratio that has been established throughout MLB.

Here’s where Passan’s doubleheader proposal comes in. A weekly doubleheader on Wednesdays or Sundays (the days when series usually end) would allow the league to fit seven games into seven days (while still including a day of rest). In this scenario, the season could start later as necessary, but still fit in the desired 100+ contests. Essentially, the ratio of games played-to-rest would be altered to fit more games in.

Of course, it’s not that easy. Baseball has settled on six games out of seven days as its ratio because it’s seemingly the optimal blend of rest and performance for its athletes. Having players who are accustomed to playing six days out of seven suddenly play an extra game per week could present major injury risks, as well as induce physical and mental exhaustion.

One solution? I pitched the concept of temporarily expanding rosters to 28 last week, an idea that would almost become necessary under this scenario to prevent injuries and keep players fresh as they slog through the dog days. Just because there is an extra game per week does not mean that players have to play more – if the rosters were expanded accordingly, players could still be rested close to their usual amount.

It’s key to understand that there is no perfect solution here. Owners will have to concede that they are going to lose money this year, as there will be fewer games. Players will have to concede that they’ll have to play more games per week than usual if they want to stage something resembling a representative season. According to Passan, both the players and the owners want to play as many games as possible, which is good news for this proposed solution.

Right now, there’s a major shortage of baseball being played, but if things go according to plan, we could be in for a serious surplus of baseball this summer, featuring an average of one doubleheader per week en route to a 100+ game season. It’s not perfect, but it might be the best baseball can do.